By Rob Verkerk PhD; founder, scientific and executive director, ANH-Intl
This won’t be the first time we’ve suggested that we’re all going to have to get used to the uncertainty that stems from, among other things, the complexity of the science, the rapidly evolving knowledge base, and the sheer number of interacting political, social, medical and biological factors at play. That means we have to live with uncertainty in the science around the dynamics of our interaction with the SARS-CoV-2 virus, over what our lives might look like in the months to come, and how our governments might respond, depending on circumstances.
But we shouldn’t be passive recipients of decisions made by those who are pulling the strings of government and industry. We need to be empowered participants – and that requires critical thinking.
Also, since the problems with which societies are trying to grapple are so multi-disciplinary, we’re not going to unravel them if we come at them from any one discipline or direction. That’s why I offer you here perspectives from 4 disciplines, quite deliberately leaving out politicians and business leaders, because they’re already running the show that’s been taking us nowhere for over 12 months.
You could write a book about each of these viewpoints – but we’ve only got the space here for a few words. They’re really nothing more than prompts for the need for critical thinking. Our journey through this process, as you’ll see, leads us to the view that we need to urgently resurrect the principle of conscientious objection that has historically helped achieve balance between civic responsibilities and liberties during times of war, especially during controversial ones like the Vietnam War.
As you read on, you’ll find we’ve shoe-horned in an interview by Pandemic Podcast’s Dan Astin-Gregory from Tuesday, in which Dan questions me over our current predicament from a multi-disciplinary perspective.
Think like a doctor
Today's Hippocratic Oath that has diversified from the original, 2,400-year-old writings of the Greek physician and philosopher, Hippocrates, often described as the 'father of medicine', still forms the basis of medical ethics that underlie the modern practice of medicine. Probably the best known aspect of the oath is a re-interpretation of Hippocrates’ original code of ethics that is known as ‘primum non nocere’ (in English: ‘first do no harm’). The ethic is widely viewed as an injunction against over-treatment by drugs (e.g. antibiotics) as well as caution over the use of experimental drugs or vaccines.
So why are medical licensing authorities around the world striking off doctors who advise perfectly healthy people — or those who might be at greater risk of adverse events owing to their autoimmune condition — that it might not be in their best interests to consent to an experimental vaccine? Many of these doctors are joining the newly-formed World Doctors Alliance to share their ordeals and help redress the injustices.
At this point – you might want to also think like a lawyer and consider how you might address the multiple breaches of medical ethics, law and civil liberties that have been gathering pace around the world ever since the genome of a new virus was sequenced back in January 2020.
There do appear to be some government scientists concerned that the current crop of vaccines won’t nail the problem in the way the public were promised at the outset given there are warnings of future lockdowns already being issued in the UK.
The public continues to be told repeatedly (e.g. here in the UK and here in the US) that the vaccines are ‘safe’ and ‘effective’ and that they remain the only option for exit to some semblance of normality. Both claims are wrong scientifically (and legally inaccurate and misleading). The first because the Phase 3 trials on which emergency authorisations were granted are incomplete, the vaccines don’t stop transmission, and they are associated with harms, albeit ones viewed as rare at this stage, that were not identified during limited Phase 3 trial data that was the basis for their public release as experimental products. A very large number of studies on different covid vaccines, including on children under the age of 12, are currently recruiting and have yet to be started as can be seen via ClinicalTrials.Gov.
We are yet to have robust data on long-term memory T cell responses for vaccination and many studies (such as this one by the Public Health Agency of Canada and University of Manitoba Canada) have yet to start recruiting.
We refer to these vaccines as experimental because they are not formally licensed - they have emergency use authorisations - and many experiments that aim to understand their function, safety and effectiveness are ongoing, typically involving members of the public and health professionals.
Just how concerned should we be about autoimmune risks from the Oxford/AstraZeneca and J&J/Janssen vaccines that rely on genetically modified chimpanzee common cold virus vectors? The fact that we see an increased autoimmune response in the form of ‘vaccine-induced immune thrombocytopenia' that appears to affect healthier, younger people, especially women, is in our view a very important signal. Especially as it signals the very issue of 'molecular mimicry' that one of the most well respected researchers in the field of autoimmune disease, Dr Yehuda Shoenfeld, warned about months ago.
Is the scientific community, regulatory authorities and the public ready to cope with the amount of data on all the other vaccines coming through the pipeline? There are currently 88 covid vaccines in clinical development and a further 184 in preclinical development. You can stay up-to-date on this by keeping tabs on the WHO’s Covid-19 candidate vaccine landscape and tracker portal (screengrab below).
Only time will tell which way all the current uncertainty pans out. This is not something we can model our way out of. The diverse range of interacting factors are simply too numerous, too poorly understood and too complex, hence the importance of trying to maintain an ecological perspective (below).
Another part of the job of any good scientist is to emerge from your silo and stand back from the problem you’re researching. When you do this, you quickly become aware how much the WHO response to covid-19 has been predicated on the availability of molecular sequencing technologies that have only become ubiquitous in recent years. As epidemiologists like Dr Knut Wittkowski said when I interviewed him a couple of weeks back, if we hadn’t sequenced SARS-CoV-2, we would have treated covid-19 “just like another flu”. The virus would also have by now likely become endemic, another member of the assorted range of respiratory viruses because without lockdowns and related measures we would have achieved herd immunity from naturally-acquired infection much quicker.
What is incontrovertible is that, right now, the global population is part of the largest experiment ever carried out, such is its faith in the scientific method and those scientists who have the ear (and usually the money) of governments.
We need to think very seriously about how prevailing scientific views can be warped when so many dissenting scientific voices are silenced or marginalised as they are presently.
Let’s think critically.
Think like an ecologist
Ultimately, we are all students in Nature’s new lesson in population dynamics and evolutionary biology, as we witness a new virus establishing itself in its new host. Mass selection pressure from the most intensive vaccination programme ever conducted, coupled with widespread infection in communities, as well as the impact of lockdowns, social distancing and related measures, appears to be providing a perfect breeding ground for more ‘immune escape’ and vaccine resistant variants.
Scary as that may sound, any ecologist will tell you, you shouldn’t be fearful of viruses in general. We and other life forms on our planet wouldn’t be here without them. Viruses are exquisite agents of genetic transfer and drivers of evolutionary processes, with genetic recombination and horizontal gene transfer between the genetic material of viruses and higher organisms occurring often, not rarely, in evolution.
Karin Moelling and Felix Broecker, in their article in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences (2019), remind us that Darwinian views of natural selection have now been extended so we now recognise that "[v]iruses and related elements introduced genetic information [that] have shaped the genomes and immune systems of all cellular life forms."
The modus operandi of viruses includes genetic variation, competition among variant forms, and ‘selection’ of the variants that can most successfully establish themselves in a host population in a given environment. All things we should be scrutinising closely at the moment.
‘Mutants of concern’ are clearly on most of our radars. An important question is: are they growing or declining in frequency? In some countries, including ones where vaccinations have occurred at a high rate, such as the UK, Israel and Chile, they are increasing and have already become dominant, or are on the way there. That should be a very large, flappy, red flag to anyone who has a reasonable grasp of evolutionary selection pressure on viruses with pathogenic capacity. More infection – including more silent infection among asymptomatic people (even if reduced by vaccination) – provides more opportunities for mutation. If we continue to drag out the time it takes for the virus to just become another endemic component of our virosphere, there will be more opportunities and more mutations.
Not dissimilar to a game of Russian roulette – so why don't we start counting our chances?
If variants become both more transmissible and more virulent, while also including immune (or vaccine) escape mutations — all trends we are witnessing in some parts of the world — we could be in deep trouble down the road. At the very least, we stay on the vaccine (or monoclonal antibody) treadmill, trying to develop new vaccines (or monoclonal antibody therapies) that outsmart the virus when we should know better; that the virus will continue to outsmart us if we maintain such intense selection pressure on it.
Let me throw in one more concept that is ecological in nature: herd immunity. The base equation used by government scientists that estimates around 70% of the population need to be vaccinated or exposed to the virus to achieve herd immunity is flawed. It is predicated on a number of assumptions that don’t apply: equal mixing of populations and successful sterilisation of the virus in vaccinated people and those exposed to wild virus being just two. This just isn’t the case. In the real world, the situation is much more complex than in an idealised model. Randolph and Barreiro remind us in their review in the journal Immunity that “[e]pidemiological and immunological factors, such as population structure, variation in transmission dynamics between populations, and waning immunity, will lead to variation in the extent of indirect protection conferred by herd immunity.”
For vaccinated people, antigen-specific antibodies bind firmly to virus particles and competitively oust natural antibodies, giving vaccinated people potentially less cross-immunity to mutant variants that are more infectious and the wave of infectivity continues.
This is not a good time to cast aside the wisdom of Charles Darwin, one of the greatest naturalists to have graced the planet, who was among the first to make our species aware of the importance of natural selection.
Let’s think critically.
Think like an economist
I’m not going to say much here, being I am not an economist. But you don’t need a degree in economics to know if you close a bunch of businesses for close on a year, economies become unstable. Markers such as unemployment are hard not too miss given they're rising like a helium balloon, affecting some age groups and ethnicities disproportionately.
But, in relation to economics, as an ecologist, I'd like to draw your attention to two things: a) to the boom and bust cycles that are linked to the prevailing Keynsian economic policies that seem to be par for the course and mirror our ecological interaction with the SARS-CoV-2 virus. And b) remind ourselves of the incredibly deep economic trouble we are getting ourselves into if we continue to, as we have for the last 12 months, divert so much attention to a single viral pathogen, at the cost of so much else, accepting staggering amounts of collateral damage in the process.
Do we repeat the same process every time the genes of a new human pathogen are sequenced?
Let’s think critically.
Become a conscientious objector
It takes all types. We came across a health coach with 5 kids in the US called Christian who has 18 reasons he won’t be getting a covid vaccine. Including the fact he’s super healthy and has already had covid. The other 16 reasons are much more interesting. The fact his post has had nearly 2 million views and almost 2000 comments since its release a few days ago speaks volumes.
It wouldn’t make sense to force people like Christian and his young family to be vaccinated – that would be the best way of dividing society further. It would be best to allow people like Christian to express themselves, which they can only do now on limited platforms like a private website. It is important too that they can exercise their right to refusal, their informed consent, and their right to conscientiously object – or even protest. Many of these rights are now at risk so don’t sit back if you value them.
Every one of these rights has been fought for by the generations before us.
I believe very soon it will be necessary for those who have remained silent up to this point to raise their hands. For all of us, together, who are concerned by the current direction taken by governments and health authorities in their efforts to deal with a moderately infectious, not particularly virulent virus to raise our hands – or, if you prefer, your fists – and stand up and be counted.
To be effective, we must know what to look for and where to find it. We'll continue to do what we can to help you, through our multi-disciplinary lens, make sense of this confusing yet wonderful world we all inhabit. Helping to support our ability to make carefully considered health choices, naturally and sustainably.
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